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Opinion: Game Demos Are (Mostly) Dead. Long Live Beta Tests!
Back in the day, game demos are something to look forward to. Demo discs were incentives to pick up a gaming magazine. Trying a small portion of a yet unreleased game, or a game just out but still on the fence on picking one up. Only the lucky few can travel to game events and conventions that have all these demos, so having these discs are a boon.
As time went on, gaming conventions are more available all over the world-there’s a convention in Singapore last year- and demos are considered more cost-prohibitive than ever. Selling a game by showing a vertical slice is not a worthy gamble it seems, as marketing now focuses on making hype videos, pre-order bonuses, and, surprise surprise, open ‘beta’ tests.
It seems that the trend on offering a chance to ‘beta’ test a highly-anticipated game before release instead of releasing a bite-sized game demo. Look at the PS Store’s list of game demos available, it is sparse.
But why the sudden change of trends? And why ‘beta’ is wrote in quotations? Honestly, the current usage of the term has grown diluted by the day, and let’s discuss that.
What is a Beta Test?
In software development, and in proxy, game development as well, the term beta is used for a feature finish build that has all the contents and feature as expected. What it all needs now is polishing, as in fixing bugs, glitches and any other unwanted errors. Before reaching beta, there’s also an alpha stage, a build that include some of the main features.
Why are all this made? It is a sign of progress. Developers need to have something presentable to show that they are making progress, and to present to other parties involved- like publishers, to communicate where they are at. Think of it as major milestones in a project development.
Usually, all this process remains behind the scenes. Even beta footage are highly kept away from media to avoid negative press, as it is not the finalised build that the game wants to be promoted as.
Occasionally, some developers give out closed beta tests, asking anyone willing to try an unpolished build of the game. How come? Most likely the developers wanted to do some stress test that requires more players than what their current manpower of playtesters in Quality Assurance (QA) are. Since it’s a closed beta test, all details of the game are not to be disclosed in public- you usually have to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that would net you in trouble if you decided to leak any info and got caught doing so.
And sometimes, there are open beta test, or public beta test. Anyone can apply, and you are free to share details about the game being tested. Again, this is usually for stress tests, as in testing the server limits of how many players playing concurrently in an online-based game, and collecting data on balancing and such.
What Beta Tests Mean Now
However, due to recent trends where we see more online features in games, and even online-only games that are more in the mold of regular AAA titles rather than advertised as online-only games like an MMORPG. The need to test servers have a greater priority, as these AAA titles are expected to have millions of players all playing at once. How to better test it than giving us gamers, anyone with a gaming console to have a go with the beta version? We all want free games, and the number of people willing to play a game as soon as possible is pretty high based on the success of Steam’s Early Access model. If people are interested with any particular game, they are willing to play it no matter what state of the product is.
Which leads to how ‘beta tests’ have now become. They are doing what game demos did.
Game demos of highly-anticipated games can be used to bolster another game’s success. Zone Of The Enders, a mecha action game by Hideo Kojima, shipped with a demo of Metal Gear Solid 2, at the time one of the hottest games people are clamouring for at the beginning of the PS2 era. This tactic is also seen recently. The demo for Final Fantasy XV (Episode Duscae) was made available for Final Fantasy Type-0 buyers for the PS4.
And so, beta tests are now done not only to help the devs test out the game in a larger scale, they are using it as a marketing technique.
Beta Tests Are The New Game Demos
Criterion Games’s Need For Speed Hot Pursuit reboot did exactly that. At its time, it’s still called a demo, but today’s standard it could be considered as one. The Need For Speed brand was ailing, and they needed to bring goodwill back. They were also testing out an online leaderboard system called the Autolog. The demo was decent, which brought a lot of momentum to the game, and was received well critically and comercially, granting them another shot to reboot another Need For Speed game.
A more current example: The Division. It was remarkable during the reveal trailer, but like many Ubisoft games announced at the time, looked too good to be true. For 2 years the game had a bad buzz due to graphical downgrade talks. A closed and open beta was done near the release date to give people a chance to see it for themselves. Fast forward today, it is Ubisoft’s biggest selling new IP, and sold copies in just a week. Another Ubisoft game, Trackmania Turbo which was relatively under-hyped, had an open beta test a weekend just before the launch to make the game be on people’s radar again.
However, it’s not all good news and practices with these open betas.
The Scummy Side of Beta Tests
For one thing, it can be debated whether the games having a very close gap of open beta test and its launch merited the ‘beta’ label. Rainbow Six Siege had a beta running until the launch of the game itself, clearly that build really isn’t a beta build, is it?
And the fixes the devs should implement after a beta test doesn’t seem to come on launch due to this. Need For Speed 2015 had a closed beta one month before its release. It was horrible. The server disconnects is one thing (thankfully it’s a beta), but the slice of the game that those were lucky to get in saw was very, very rough. The most common complaint gameplay-wise is the horrible rubber-banding. Thankfully the devs at Ghost Games noticed the feedback, but unfortunately, the release build was just as horrible, even the server disconnects. Not much was changed from the beta test to the release build.
And reading some early game reports when Rainbow Six Siege launched, it’s the same thing. Though both games have been performing better currently, but that’s besides the point for this topic.
To imagine that these beta tests won’t trickle down into a more stable release for some games is one thing, but to dangle the access to it to incentivise pre-orders is plain scummy.
One particular game guilty of this is Street Fighter V. Outside of Asia, the only way to get into the planned three stages of the beta test is to pre-order the game. Even then, the first beta was a total disaster that it doesn’t even work at all. Given that for this very reason are why beta tests should be in the first place, but there are people paying for this access. Who wouldn’t get mad if a promised thing doesn’t get delivered? From the conversations that happened during the time, the notion that pre-ordering would grant them access to a demo, not an in-progress possibly buggy version of the game, has floated around.
Of course, the beta was postponed and a proper apology was given, but it still left a bad mark.
And seeing more games dangling the access as a way to fork up more money upfront is not a good idea. It doesn’t mean limited access to a beta is a bad thing is terrible, it’s the execution that is the problem.
Game demos may not go away totally, but they are getting rarer by the day. Taking that place is the plethora of beta test of upcoming games. On one side, beta tests can kill two birds with one stone: helps getting some rigorous testing and data gathering as well racking up the hype and marketing. On the other, current beta test practices might be cheaping the term form what it supposed to mean in the first place, and can lead to scummy practices.
Whatever you feel right now, the fact that beta tests are the more likely choice to get hands-on before buying a game is the current trend right now. We still have the opportunity to test a game out, but it is a limited time deal, and it may or may not be representative of the final release build.
But still, the tests provide a similar fill that game demos have done throughout the years, and the opportunity to take part with helping the devs making the game better is a good feeling. Whether or not the devs make something out of the them, is another question for another article.
(Note: As the time of this article published, several game demos have cropped up on the PSN store: Final Fantasy XV’s Platinum Demo, and Trackmania Turbo. Again, demos, aren’t entirely dead, but they are making way for more beta tests)
[This article originally appeared on the author’s personal site, meckronos.wordpress.com]